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True Spirit

"True Spirit" is an inspirational adventure about Australian sailor Jessica Watson, who in 2009 became the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe by herself. Her quest was sparked by another record-breaker, German sailor Jesse Martin, who did the same thing ten years earlier when he was two years older than Watson; Watson used his memoir and course as partial inspiration, with support from her family and manager and after many years of training and experience on the water. 

Watson's family was criticized in the media and by government officials for being irresponsible, and some at the time worried that Watson lacked a full understanding of all the risks involved in the trip and wasn't mature or responsible enough to undertake it (she collided with a bulk carrier during a test run from Sidney to Brisbane and was found to have been asleep at the time). Nevertheless, she persisted, sailing around the world, surviving multiple storms and a long period of windless stasis. She was recognized with multiple citations and medals and became an emblem of the can-do spirit, particularly for girls and young women who love sailing but felt excluded from it by sexism. 

Her story would seem like a can't-miss subject for a crowd-pleasing film, and "True Spirit"—starring Teagan Croft of DC's "Titans," directed by Sarah Spillane and co-written by her and Cathy Randall—does not miss. The screenplay's structure tends to impede dramatic momentum by regularly cutting back to key moments in Watson's childhood just when the present-tense action is building up a fine head of steam. But the sailing sequences, a mix of location footage and green screen bits, are stirring, sometimes breathtaking, and occasionally storybook-poetic (as in a nighttime scene that begins with an overhead shot of Watson's boat, Ella's Pink Lady, seeming to float in a sea of stars, then tilts up to show that the stars are reflections in the water). 

In real life, as noted in Watson's memoir, her dad vigorously opposed her taking the trip, but the film makes it seem as if he had only a moment's hesitation; and Cliff Curtis' "coach" character, Ben Watson, is a fictionalized version of Watson's real mentor and project manager, Bruce Arms. He's been given a tragic backstory here that seems mainly there to give the heroine something to cruelly use against him at a moment when they're both stressed out. (Yes, they make up.) But there are always compressions, deletions, and inventions in dramas based on life, and the leanness of this film's approach works mostly in its favor, even if there are times when one might wish they'd leaned into the "fable" aspect a bit harder (what an animated film this might have made!).

Overall, however, there's something a tad anodyne and "off" about this production. It's so perky and clean-scrubbed that it feels like a Disney Channel version of a wilderness survival tale, suitable for young children who presumably can't handle too many complexities or contradictions, and whose parents (perhaps) believe that the highest function of popular culture is to show families as harmonious institutions, and outsiders as interfering know-nothings. 

And at the same time, strangely, the film is so single-mindedly focused on vindicating Watson and her family and coach, and making anyone who raised objections to the trip seem like killjoy ninnies and usurpers of free will, that there are moments when it seems like the movie equivalent of a sore winner. Media naysayers are incarnated by a composite character TV reporter, played by actor Todd Lasance—a showboater with a punchable smirk who has been given the name "Atherton," presumably an homage to the narcissist portrayed by actor William Atherton in "Die Hard." Of course Atherton, too, eventually comes around and cheers for Watson. Additionally, Watson's blog as framed within the movie seems like more of an illustration of how to bypass the media and get one's "message" out than an autobiographical treasure trove documenting Watson's incredible journey. Meanwhile, the ingrained sexism that Watson faced from records-certifiers who came up with all sorts of reasons to deny her right to claim a world's record afterward go largely unexamined. 

Watson's memoir and the 2010 documentary about her achievement, "210 Days," are altogether more thorough and nuanced looks at this story, though of course that's nearly always true of documentaries that tell the same story as works of fiction. Dramatic features tend to have goal-directed stories with uncomplicated happy endings. The messiness of life gets sanded off in the name of giving the people what they supposedly want.

Now playing on Netflix.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

True Spirit movie poster

True Spirit (2023)

Rated NR

109 minutes

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